The Dominance of Evangelicalism: The Age of Spurgeon and Moody

Article excerpt

The Dominance of Evangelicalism: The Age of Spurgeon and Moody. By David W. Bebbington. [A History of Evangelicalism: People, Movement and Ideas in the English-Speaking World.] (Downers Grove, IEinois: InterVarsity Press. 2005. Pp. 288. $23.00.)

David W. Bebbington is a general editor of the series in which this book is volume three in the projected five-volume series which will cover the eighteenth century to the present. His subject is the evangelical movement in the English speaking world-Britain, the United States, and the settler colonies of the British Empire-in the nineteenth century. He deals with this vast subject skillfully, and has produced a useful and clearly written account based upon an impressive familiarity with both primary and secondary source materials.

The central thesis of the book is the dominant place of evangelicalism in the culture of the nineteenth century. The steps which defined the evangelical experience were the acceptance of the Bible as the source of truth, conversion as its beginning, redemption as its object, and work as its consequence. The spread of literacy and a common text, the English Bible, allowed evangelicals all over the world to share a religious bond that transcended distance and national and denominational identities. Bebbington uses two men to symbolize this unity, the American revivalist, Dwight L. Moody, and the English Baptist, Charles Haddon Spurgeon. Moody, together with his musical director, Ira Sankey crossed the Atlantic to preach to huge audiences with a message that cut across denominational lines. Moody's powerful sermons and Sankey's upbeat hymns were followed by "inquiry rooms," a form of personal counseling, innovations widely copied. Spurgeon presided over London's Metropolitan Tabernacle, where he preached to the largest Protestant congregation in the world for nearly forty years. Spurgeon's printed sermons, published weekly, made him famous all over the world. Though a Baptist, like the nondenominational Moody, he was a man whose appeal was far beyond his religious base.

Bebbington emphasizes throughout his work the unity of evangelicals world-wide. "What is most striking about the movement is less its heterogeneity over space than its internal connections." (p.78) National historians have ignored the inner dynamic of evangelical experience which bound the faithful together. Evangelicals shared a common view of spirituality which found its expression in prayer, was reaffirmed by the home, guided by the sermon, and expressed in the conviction that Jesus was personal savior. That evangelical spirituality fueled outreach at home and the mission field abroad.

Nineteenth-century evangelicalism was influential, because it was in harmony with the dominant cultural movement of Romanticism. Bebbington argues that the evangelicals were not as hostile to the Enlightenment as generally believed, and offers as evidence the influence of Enlightenment Commonsense Philosophy, particularly the argument that belief in God was intuitive in all human beings. …